Category Archives: The National Post

Camping on the Campaign Trail

Canada is smack dab in the middle of a national election campaign. PlayGroundology‘s international friends may have twigged that something was awry north of the 49th with the flurry of TIME magazine-led media coverage reporting on some past transgressions of the current Prime Minister prior to him holding political office.

This post has to do with a particular campaign promise made this past Thursday nearly a week after TIME broke the news that made a surprised world sit up and take notice. Let me disclose at this point that:

  • I am a Canadian citizen;
  • I do not have a membership in any political party;
  • I am among the ranks of undecided voters – 11% of the electorate at the most recent reckoning;
  • the camping campaign pledge will not be a clincher or a deal breaker for me whoever I wind up casting my ballot for on October 21.

That’s right, you read correctly there is a campaign pledge related to providing young people the experience of camping in a national or provincial  park.

 

As part of a nature conservation package, the Liberal Party announced:

  • We will give every child the chance to learn how to camp by the time they reach grade eight, expanding the successful Learn to Camp program;
  • This will make it possible for 400,000 kids each year to learn the skills to enjoy camping; and;
  • We will give 75,000 less privileged children and their families an up to four night trip to one of Canada’s National or Provincial Parks:
  • This includes camping accommodations and a travel bursary of up to $2,000 so that families can more easily afford a once-in-a-lifetime trip to more national parks like Banff, Gros Morne, Forillon and the Cape Breton Highlands.

Predictably, the small ‘c’ conservative media outlets and columnists pilloried the idea. One of the Sun Media chain’s well known writers opined:

“This is at one and the same time one of the most patronizing and one of the most naive policies ever proposed during a Canadian election.”   Lorne Gunter

John Ivison, a colleague of Gunter’s on the national media stage, had this to say in The National Post:

But handing over public money to fund camping holidays for low-income and new Canadian families takes nannyism to heights not even the Trudeau Liberals have reached hitherto.

Well, I did mention that we are in the midst of election sweepstakes. The fevered, adversarial campaigns are susceptible to hyperbole in the opinion sections and amongst the chattering classes.  Television news from Canada’s two major stations – CBC and CTV – provided more balanced coverage with a focus on the available facts as did Québec’s La Presse.

Canadians do love to spend time in the outdoors to embrace a number of activities including camping as the Statistics Canada graphic below illustrates.  Our public parks are sought after with vacationers from around the world coming here to get a taste of Canada’s nature experience. This summer we met families who traveled from Europe throughout the three weeks we camped in Quebec and New Brunswick. Why not ‘less privileged children’ and their families too?

 

There’s a global movement working to reconnect kids with the natural world. Given the documented benefits of outdoor play and the growing body of research linking time spent in natural environments to positive health outcomes, this is something that we as a society should continue to focus and push forward on.

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As for the costing of this campaign pledge I have no expertise there. There is no arguing though that we need recruits to lead change on the environmental frontlines. Perhaps this type of program will provide an aspirational window that could turn into an organic eco-action incubator.

Our kids have been camping since they were infants. If there is still such a thing as leisure, or pleasure camping when they are adults, I am quite confident that they will be there enjoying and caring for the natural world. Making access to this kind of experience more widespread seems to be a laudable policy objective particularly when we need every hand on deck to save us from ourselves.

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This past weekend, people traveled from across the country to spend the weekend in the woods outside of Ottawa and take part in the Canada’s first Outdoor Play Summit. Educators, health care, recreation and design professionals, urban planners and others are looking to connect more kids with the natural world. Organizations like the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada and Earthday Canada are working to  make this happen. Perhaps there is a role for them and longstanding groups like Scouts Canada and the Canadian chapter of the International Play Association should this policy ever see the light of day.

PlayGroundology friends – what do you think, would this idea make your policy deliberations if you were leading the discussions? As for myself, I would potentially see this idea as a much better investment than tax cuts or any other kind of breaks for the 1%.

Are Playground Injuries Really Where We’re Hurting Most?

Last week Canada’s national public broadcaster, CBC, aired an item on playground injuries. The lead pretty much summed it all up, a numbers story that fell short on broader context.

“More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up by eight per cent between 2007 and 2012, CBC News has learned.”

CBC Playground Injuries copy

One thing is sure, no one wants to see a child injured. I live in Halifax, Canada a city with more than 300 playgrounds. My kids and I have played at about 50. They’re well maintained, mostly of the predictable off the shelf variety that address safety concerns and are light on excitement. In the last few years, I don’t recall any media reports about serious injuries.

Now I’m sure we can make playgrounds safer. How about thick foam landing mats as ground covering like those that welcome pole vaulters as they fall earthward, or maybe getting kids suited up in protective gear? While I don’t want to make light of safety concerns, overzealousness on the safety scale reduces the ability of kids to experience and assess risk on their own. For a great resource on risk and play, read Tim Gill’s No Fear – Growing up in a risk averse society (free download).

I was disappointed in the CBC story and felt shortchanged. How many injuries occurr in homes, automobiles, skater parks? Where do playgrounds fit in the kid injury stats? Fortunately, others were thinking along the same lines including Chris Selley who shared her perspective in the National Post‘s Full Comment section of the paper.

“For 2010, the CIHI database of major injury hospitalizations contains 1,918 patients under the age of 20. Of those injuries, 387 (20%) were caused by falls. And of those 387 falls, just 12 (3%) involved playground equipment.”

The tenor of the CBC item may have left some parents alarmed, not to speak of cash strapped municipal governments whose capital budgets are the primary bankers for playground design, installation and maintenance.

DSC07730Halifax’s submarine playground, one of the few custom designs in the city

In truth though, the casualty here has to do with not reporting the bigger story – children are spending less and less time outdoors in self directed, independent play. It is not clear what long term repercussions will result from this societal shift that started taking place decades ago.

During the same week the CBC item was aired, two articles were published in the US. In the magazine aeon, Peter Gray wrote about the changing face of play in his article, The Play Deficit. He brings a researcher’s rigour to the subject.

“Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing.”

In The Atlantic Cities, writer Sarah Goodyear reflected on Gray’s article in her piece entitled Why our kids need play, now more than ever. Her conclusion is forceful.

“The problem is so deep and systemic that it must be addressed at all levels of society, beginning with the family. If you have kids, ask yourself if they are getting enough time to explore and run around.”

It was a great week for play in the US. This past weekend saw people gathering in Pennsylvania to promote and discuss The Philadelphia Declaration of Play. Click here if you would like to sign the Declaration or just find out more about this initiative.

Philly Declaration of PlaySome members of the Philadelphia Declaration of Play project

North America is not alone in the diminishing play scenario. The UK has a well documented challenge to contend with also. Take a look at Play England’s Love Outdoor Play campaign then ask yourself where the greater benefit lies. Is it in shining the light on the value of increasing independent play opportunities and addressing the root causes of its decline in the digital age, or is it in the relentless pursuit of safety at playgrounds?

With all due respect to those who have suffered playground injuries (and those who report on them), there is no doubt that safety issues are important, but we need to get at where we’re really hurting on a much more significant level – the shrinking role of play in our children’s lives.

Editor’s note – I was contacted by one of the reporters doing research for the national component of the CBC story. During a 20 to 30 minute conversation, I offered information on risk as it relates to play, suggested designers who provide alternatives to modular, ‘off the shelf’ playground equipment and pointed out other well established play traditions such as Europe’s adventure playgrounds that differ dramatically from the Canadian experience.

I followed up this conversation with an email that provided additional resources. Given that all my prior experiences speaking about play and playgrounds with CBC had been very positive, I was surprised that none of the background, particularly the linkages to risk as it relates to play, saw the light of day. I had been invited to do an on-air interview for the regional item coming out of Halifax but unfortunately this fell through due to scheduling conflicts.

I do hope there will be subsequent opportunities for CBC to examine the decline of independent play and its causes as well as the work that is being undertaken in Canada and around the world on behalf of kids to reverse this trend.